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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Varla Jean Merman Appearing at the New Conservatory Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Knock, Knock and The Hairy Ape


The award winning Diva Extraordinaire, Varla Jean Merman, who claims to be the love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, has brought her hysterical cabaret act to the New Conservatory Theatre Center on Van Ness Avenue. Varla Jean Merman is the creation of Jeffrey Roberson who has been playing the character for seven years. He has traveled all over the country and is the recipient of many awards including the Backstage West Garland Award, the Bistro Award and the MAC Award. He played for fifteen sold out months at New York's Eighty-Eight's cabaret. Jeffrey also took his alter ego to London for a three week run last September where he played to sold out audiences at the Soho Theatre. Jeffrey was Mary Sunshine in the first national touring company of Chicago which played from Schenectady all the way to Tokyo, Japan.

Jeffrey Roberson's new show (which has also played London) is The Worst of Varla Jean Merman. Time Out New York has called the show "a delirious synthesis of Devine, Karen Finley and Montserrat Caballe, and even those who think drag has had its day swear that this big, beautiful creature is kind of a demented genius." Yes, this person is a demented genius, especially in her encore number "Be Insane," a song more frightening than Joan Crawford with an ax or even a wire hanger.

The audience is bombarded with 75 minutes of Varla extolling her virtues by saying laughingly that she is cleaning up her act and becoming a new person. She says that if this group expected to be entertained, well she had no intention of entertaining anyone but herself. However, she says that she is going to give her fans' "brains a big fat bug." She is going to "enlighten, enrich and uplift us out of the mundane rut that has become our life."

This woman has more energy than the Energizer bunny. Varla sings songs such as "Talk to your Genitals" (to the melody of "Talk to the Animals") with lyrics like "read to an ovary a little Madame Bovary." She shows hilarious videos of herself in Provincetown and shopping for a "Hello Kitty" toaster in Tokyo, Japan. There is even a witty video of a chain smoker making love to her that is side splitting. The diva stands to the side of the screen singing "I Can Hear Your Breath." Ms. Merman also shows her talents as a ventriloquist by using a hand puppet in the shape of a frankfurter whose name is (what else) Frank. There is a lot of corny but fun dialogue like the question to the sausage "What is your favorite TV program" with the frank answering "The Weakest Link." Later the frank deserts Varla to become a kosher frank for the Hebrew National Company.

The flametress's six foot Varla has gone beyond the standard drag act. Her jokes are relatively clean compared to some of the bitchy remarks we get in other drag shows. She has a great operatically trained voice and she wears some stunning beaded gowns through the 75 minutes on stage.

The only draw back on Wednesday night was that the sound system was much too loud during her first two numbers. Many of the lyrics from the first two songs were lost and she sang the songs much too rapidly. She is backed up by Tom Shaw on the piano and Roberta Damke on drums.

The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman will play at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco through May 4. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call (415)861-8972 for tickets. Pride Season will conclude the 2001-02 season with Joe Calarco's Shakespeare's R & J starting April 24, Terrence McNally's The Ritz, starting May 15 and the Kander and Ebb Revue The World Goes Round on May 29th.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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